Belarus dictator courts Europe before 'unfree and unfair' election

In the all-seeing eyes of Belarus's KGB agents, Aliaksandr Atroshchankau is both a "hooligan" and a "terrorist" with the criminal record to prove it.

By Colin Freeman in Minsk

The polite, 27-year-old graduate has lost count of the number of times he has been arrested - about 40 at the latest count - and has done four stints in jail, most recently in June.

His crime? Working for a pro-democracy organisation, and urging a boycott of today's parliamentary elections, which he predicts will fall well short of the new "free and fair" standards recently promised by Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko.

"The elections will be anything but free and fair," he said, stirring a cup of tea in a drab, Soviet-era hotel. "Lukashenko is trying to fool the West into thinking he's some kind of democrat, but he isn't."

That, however, is not stopping Mr Lukashenko, better known in the West as "Europe's last dictator", from trying. Since taking power in 1994, the moustachioed ex-chicken farm boss has proved to be one of most unreconstructed of all the leaders to emerge from the former Soviet Union.

The Communist-era buildings and Lenin statues that still dominate Belarus's time-warped capital, Minsk, are testimony to the slow pace of change. But more signifcantly, Mr Lukashenko has retained the KGB and remained staunchly pro-Moscow, crushing all attempts to repeat the pro-Western Orange Revolution that ousted a similarly undemocratic counterpart in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004.

His ruthless crackdown on protests over the alleged rigging of the 2006 presidential elections resulted in both him and senior cronies being banned from visiting the European Union, and branded by Washington as upholders of one of the world's last "outposts of tyranny".

Now, though, the man whom even Russia's Vladimir Putin thought was too authoritarian is having to court Europe once again - thanks to the Kremlin's own lurch back towards bullying, autocratic ways. Fearful that Moscow's recent armed incursion into Georgia suggests it is trying to regain control over its "near abroad", Mr Lukashenko is now urgently seeking to mend relations with the West, even hiring Lady Thatcher's former spin doctor, Tim Bell, for advice.

Mr Atroshchankau, who claims activists like him still face police harassment merely for distributing leaflets, believes it will it be a tough sell. After all, how exactly does one trumpet the democratic credentials of a man whose own officials once described him as "a bit higher than God", and whose only other international honours are awards like the Jose Marti Order from Cuba, and the Order of the Revolution from Libya?

"If he succeeds, it will be down to Lord Bell's PR skills," remarked Mr Atroshchankau. "Personally, I think it is immoral of Lord Bell even to try."

Nonetheless, the new Cold War tensions sparked by Russia's Georgian escapade means the West is giving Mr Lukashenko the benefit of the doubt. The first key test is today's parliamentary polls, which this time he has pledged will be "by the rules of the West". Opposition candidates have been allowed airtime on state televison, political prisoners jailed in 2006 freed, foreign observers promised better access to vote counts, and Western journalists granted visas with less fuss than before.

Yet wandering the massive boulevards that criss-cross Minks's Brutalist architecture, there seems little sense of change in the air. While these days the KGB focuses mainly on known activists like Mr Atroshchankau rather than the general public, many are still wary of discussing politics.

"I don't believe the election will be honest, but I don't feel safe talking about it," said a 23-year-old woman who asked to be referred to as "Anna". She was eating potato dumplings in a bar near the hulking colonnades of October Square, where riot police broke up mass protests in 2006. "I hate the fact that we are afraid to speak out, but my parents have told me not to even go to see candidates at election meetings. Lukashenko wants to stay in power for ever, but the country needs change."

Opposition candidates are contesting 69 of the 110 parliamentary seats, yet there is little evidence of their activity either on the streets or in local media. Campaign posters are restricted to small designated noticeboards, while organising a rally or meeting involves a tedious paper chase for official permission. Election rules limit candidates to just 10 minutes of state airtime and a campaign budget equivalent to just ?400.

The rule is designed to ensure equality, but critics say it favours the status quo. "I have 55,000 houses in my constituency, yet on that money I can only leaflet a fraction of them," complained Olga Kazulin, 28, whose father, Alexander, is among the recently released political prisoners. "The system is weighed against us."

At least five opposition candidates are already boycotting the election in protest over its perceived unfairness. But as in many countries with little history of democracy, Belarus's opposition politicians can also be their own worst enemies. Ranging from Communists to Christians, they form fractious coalitions defined not so much by their political hue as by shared dislike of the incumbent, who, in Mr Lukashenko's case, has never felt the need of a party to back him.

That is partly because he enjoys some genuine popularity among Belarus's 10 million people, having it turned the country into something that resembles an improved version of the old Soviet Union.

The streets are spotlessly clean and crime is almost non-existent. There are fewer new skyscrapers or Starbucks than in Russia, but living standards are are kept reasonably high through old fashioned state-subsidised businesses like the Lenin Minsk Tractor Factory, which celebrated its 60th anniversary two years ago.

"Lukashenko is a good president because when he came to power we were in a mess," said Artyom Ozarovsky, a factory worker. "He established law and order, and those who say he's a dictator just want his job."

Ludmila Gryaznova, a member of the opposition United Civic Party who was leafleting outside the factory, was not so sure. Without proper market discipline, she said, the factory was already struggling - not that she expected to be able to do much about it.

"This election has been different because for the first time I have been able to hand out leaflets without KGB harrassment," she said. "But I don't expect the result to be that different. The government will still fiddle the results somehow once the ballot papers are in."

Such accusations draw a stern frown from Lidia Ermoshina, the blonde-haired, grey-suited ex-prosecutor who heads Belarus's election commission. As one of the senior regime officials who is on the European visa ban, she says she wants clean elections if only to improve her chances of one day holidaying in Rome and Venice.

"This time we have 926 international observers. although I think they been biased in the past against us," she said. "But we don't want to be reproached for not following our international obligations."

Even without any cheating, however, few expect more than a handful of seats to go to the opposition, which could put both Europe and America in a dilemma. Refusing to recognise the polls will only alienate Mr Lukashenko, who has already warned that he will "halt all discussions with the West" if the election is deemed "undemocratic" again.

On the other hand, giving them any kind of clean bill of health will help bolster a ruler whose only real agenda may be playing East off against West in classic Cold War fashion. And who, in the eyes of many, really belongs in the same jail cells to which he has sent so many opponents.

"If this next parliament is recognised internationally it will be very bad for our country," said Mr Atroshchankau, shaking his head. "It would mean Lukashenko's regime has made itself legitimate."



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